Learn how to access English, Scottish and Welsh church records — the key source for tracing your ancestors.
Church records date from the 1500s in England, and the 1600s in Scotland and Wales. They're the best source for English and Welsh birth, marriage and death data before 1837 (when civil registration began), and for Scottish birth and marriage data before 1855 (the church there kept few burial records).
Each church parish — which might cover more than one village — kept records of its parishioners. Beginning in 1598, English and Welsh parishes were required to make copies of their registers for the bishop of the diocese. Known as bishop's transcripts, these records were supposed to be exact copies of the parish registers. In practice, one set of records may contain more information, be more legible or cover more years, so it's worth checking both parish registers and bishop's transcripts.
Of course, many nonconformists — Roman Catholics, Baptists, Jews, Quakers and other groups that diverged from the established church (the Church of England in both England and Wales, and the Presbyterian Church in Scotland) — lived in the British Isles. Wales in particular was a hotbed of nonconformism. For the most part, nonconformists kept their own records; however, before 1837, many English and Welsh nonconformists were married by the Church of England, so they'll have Church of England marriage records. Some nonconformist records are still kept by the churches and synagogues that created them. Others were deposited in county record offices, the National Library of Wales, the General Register Office for Scotland or church archives.